English Major Confessions: Editing

I have fond memories from my college years sitting at the student union in a group with our books spread open over the table. We chatted as we took notes and sipped our coffees. Since I was an English major, I’d not use a textbook, but would instead be bent over a novel, using a highlighter or notecards to mark a selection. It was never here that I was asked the question that I knew, in the back of my mind, would eventually be asked. It was always somewhere in passing, such as on a walk through campus or passing by each other in the dining hall.

“Could you edit my paper?”

“Sure,” I would say with a smile, but I wasn’t excited about it. I had my own papers to write and books to read, and looking at a report on a subject about which I knew very little, would be time consuming if I wanted to do a good job. But there was something even worse: the prospect that the paper would be so bad that it needed an entire rewrite. Because if that happened, not only was I going to have to tell them that their writing was no good, but I was also going to have to spend a lot more time helping out than I’d like to.

I never really knew what to do when this happened. Should I try to salvage what they had or ask that they try the whole thing over? My mind often has trouble creating order from chaos. Even today, when I edit my novel, I often rewrite entire sections rather than try to pick out the good pieces and work with them. Rewriting comes out smoother and more concise and tends to refine the points one is trying to make. But few people, especially those who don’t fancy themselves writers, want to scrap their work and start anew.

Of course, those who knew I was an English major and requested my help made the assumption that since I studied English I was also a good editor. But I don’t think I am. Sure, I could catch spelling and grammar problems and tighten up a paper, but for those who just threw letters and words together and hoped it came out making sense, I was the wrong one to go to. I speak in terms of generalities. I could comment on rhythm and flow, but I have a hard time knowing what to tell someone who is lost. I don’t have a map to look at, I simply know where to go. I could tell them what I would do, so I could make suggestions and hope that they were able to make sense of it in the end.

I have vague memories of editing papers early on, in the first two years especially. But as graduation neared, I spent more time with fellow English majors and so editing others’ work became a rarity. When it did happen, it wouldn’t take more than the time it spent to read the paper, and I liked that. It kept things simple. And, at least in my experience, we English majors took pride in what we wrote, embracing this idea that we didn’t need to ask another for help. We’d already written our own and edited so many others’ papers that, when we’d gotten into the thick of our degrees, our writing wasn’t what needed help, it was our scholarship. It was how we viewed a text and our criticism of it. Study time became a lot quieter then. It was often just me and a friend, holding our coffees, highlighters, and pens as we read through a text, prepping for our next report.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.
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